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Global niches

Global niches

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Solely focusing on hyperlocal content, in some cases, is the sure way to journalism hell.

Terence Lee

When New Nation first began, we envisioned it as a hyperlocal website — much in the vein of established Singapore players like The Online Citizen, Temasek Review, and Yawning Bread.

Heck, Shihan and I graduated from TOC, which is pretty much the most recognised independent current affairs group blog around today. Belmont had online journalism experience too, serving in an online campus paper where he met the love of his life.

With such a crowded field (since then many others — Satay Club, VFC etc — have spawned), we needed to differentiate ourselves, so we decided to go with an off-beat, tongue-in-cheek, rude and raunchy style — current affairs for the not-so-interested, the apathetic, and restless. We decided also to feature more lifestyle and finance content.

Well, we got flamed for it — by the folks at TOC no less. But that’s not the important point. For us, it was a matter of necessity: Being a TOC clone was a sure way to hell. In a crowded pond, the surest way to draw attention is to be different.

Fast forward to today. Our readership is almost double now post General Election than pre, although growth is slow.

And something else dawned upon me: Hyperlocal no longer seemed to make sense.

Hyperlocal works if you are the first-mover, a pioneer in a community underserved (or, if you have shitloads of money, like Yahoo!). When TOC went online, it was a wide open field: All the other fish had died or were still eggs. Now, there are too many publications and too little time: People have only 24 hours to spare.

When Shihan gamely approached Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, for advice on whether New Nation will work, he said no.

Reason? Singapore is too small a market. Amen to that. Of course, he said other things too, but that is for us to know.

I think Sivers made a very good point. Before the Internet existed, publications were limited by geographical boundaries. To be trans-national, you had to be rich enough to pay for shipping to get magazine into newsstands worldwide.

Today, the cost of starting and distributing content is much cheaper: You can even do it at zero monetary cost.

While this creates the problem of a long tail of Internet content that varies in quality, it creates another opportunity: The ability to distribute content to previously untapped niche areas that are unbounded by geographical limits.

They are what I call ‘global niches’.

Think goth culture. Or cosplayers. Or Little Monsters. These subcultures transcend nationality, because what they represent are values, ideas, and personalities, things which are easily transferable from one country to another.

Globalisation creates two phenomena: Homogenisation, where cultures melt into one, and heterogenisation, where cultures absorb elements from other cultures to form new ones. Both are happening at the same time.

And I believe this presents an untapped potential for publishers and content producers like ourselves: It is possible for a Singaporean to write something with global appeal without losing his/her local audience.

I suggested this to my fellow editors. I think broadly speaking, we embrace the idea of going international. But ideas are free, what matters is how we execute it. There are many challenges: How many global niches should we aim for, without losing ourselves? How do we retain reader loyalty with such a diverse crowd? How do we ensure our content gets picked up by the people we want to reach?

As a baseline, we still hope to reach out to Singaporean readers. We have amazing content planned that will continue to appeal to them. But starring at our naval isn’t going to get us anywhere in terms of readership and ultimately revenue. We need to aim higher.

Will the name New Nation continue to be relevant? When we began, I took the word ‘nation’ in its 20th Century meaning, that of a ‘nation-state’. We took the name from an old Singapore newspaper that no longer existed. That newspaper went defunct before the age of the Internet.

But perhaps our usage of the word has to evolve as well.

Does race, language, geographical distance, still matter today?

Yes, certainly. But their significance is diminishing.

Perhaps ‘New Nation’ can be a rallying call, a vision of an ideal future governed less by the colour of one’s skin than by the beliefs one holds.

In a connected world, that is certainly possible.

Is Singapore a renaissance city?

Is Singapore a renaissance city?

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Not quite, but it’s getting there. All the government has to do now is to become less of a control freak.

By Terence Lee

Crazy Horse is lame compared to nyotaimori --serving sushi on a naked women's body. Secret Cooks Club -- a private dinner club in Singapore -- organised one such session recently.

SOMETHING strange is happening in Singapore, the nipple of an island-state in South-East Asia that’s more well-known for caning naughty American brat Michael Fay and banning chewing gum.

It’s no longer boring.

For years, the liberal Western media have drilled into readers ad nauseam about Singapore’s human rights violations and strict government control on every aspect of their citizens’ lives.

Most recently, a German TV variety show ridiculed the country, claiming that Singaporeans with fever are barred from entering any building. “Singaporeans are not just crazy, they are tremendously crazy,” concludes the host of the show.

Singaporeans, predictably, went mad over it.

But I think being called “crazy” is a good thing. I’m sure Singaporeans will agree that being labelled as bonkers is a step up from “boring”. Remember that just a while ago, a local journalist was whacked silly by her countrymen for calling Singapore a stale place.

Perhaps we can attribute another trait to Singaporeans: Hard-to-please.

Think of it this way: People are more likely to visit Singapore if it’s a “crazy” place rather than a “boring” place, right? No harm swindling tourists of a few extra gazillion dollars just so they can ogle at exotic Asian women (which Singaporean man cannot get),  and buy a few kitsch souvenirs from exotic Chinatown (which locals find too plasticky).

These things aside, the perception towards Singapore amongst liberal Western know-it-all journalists are indeed showing signs of change.

Take this article by the New York Times, for instance, which talks about the expanding “cultural realm” in the island-state. Singapore has a developing art and indie fashion scene. And if you want food, there’s plenty, and in all varieties.

Another write-up, this time by the Guardian from the United Kingdom, expands on this theme, exploring Singapore’s “culinary renaissance”. Secret dinner clubs are thriving in Singapore, and one of them, Secret Cooks Club (which is no secret anymore), recently held a dinner with sushi served on a naked woman.

If that isn’t crazy and sexy, I don’t know what is!

There are more examples.

The Pink Nipple swells.

Just a few days ago, a record 10,000 supporters donned pink and turned up at the Speaker’s Corner to support the right for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgender people to love and be loved. The event, called Pink Dot, culminated in the formation of a giant, well, pink dot on the field. In a country where homosexual sex is banned, such show of solidarity is astounding.

That same week, Echelon 2011, a fledging annual conference for tech startups, was held. Eager young entrepreneurs from Singapore and Asia converged at the National University of Singapore to display their wares and network with angel investors and venture capitalists from all around the world.

The highlight of the event was a competition where 11 startups from Asia pitched their business ideas to a panel of judges consisting of established entrepreneurs and investors. It’s no surprise who won: Lee Min Xuan, who co-founded Playmoolah with fellow Singapore belle Audrey Tan, impressed judges and the audience with her solid presentation and quick wit.

Just a flash in the pan, you say?

Not quite. Last year, local mobile security company tenCube was acquired by McAfee in a deal estimated to be worth about US$25 million, making CEO and founder Darius Cheung a very rich man.

And consider how Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and CD Baby founder Derek Sivers (both big names) have both made Singapore their home. I must say something is indeed brewing in the kitchen, and it smells really good.

That brings me to my next point: Singapore, as a renaissance city, is still a dish being cooked. It’s work in progress.

So far, the government has its hands in everything: Arts, media, business, and people’s sex lives. Yes, they care about who (or what) gets into your pants. No doubt, initial government support and funding is crucial to grow Singapore’s cultural and creative space. But letting go is crucial for maturation.

Already, this is slowly happening in the political realm, where laws governing politicking using social media were loosened. Just as importantly, no politicians were sued during the last elections.

But more can be done: Censorship of positive gay portrayals in the local TV channels still occur. In that space, gays are treated like bogeymen who are used to scare children. The Singapore entrepreneurial scene, while growing, can do with more mentorship and private funding.

As Singaporeans embark on a trip towards cultural and financial nirvana, I propose they smell the roses a bit more. Stop the car, pee in the bushes, shag your wives, and watch the sunrise together.

Alternative news websites like The Online Citizen and Temasek Review, while serving an important function in the country, whine way too much. They feed off the negative energy of angry Singaporeans, creating a vortex of discontent and pessimism.

And in the process, they forget that Singapore is in many ways the envy of the world.

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